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Friday, February 16, 2007

The Perils of Teaching The Mer / chant of Ven / ice

When an essay uses phrases like the ones below, at what point do we shift from thinking the student may be trying to fill up space, or maybe has imperfect control of his rhetoric, to thinking he's an outright anti-S*mite? [sorry for all the asterisks; trying to engage in a little Google-proofing]
"It is Sh*l*ck, a character that is shown to be greedy, angry, and a J*w..."
"...and Sh*l*ck gets what he deserves because he is a J*w."
"This is a greedy characteristic, and it is equaled by all the other characters that the greed goes with his J*wdom, and that as such, Sh*l*ck is an all around bad person."
"The fact that it is Sh*l*ck, the evil, greedy, non-Christian...."
"just because he is a J*w..."
"Even this reasoning adds to the view that as a J*w, Sh*l*ck is a bad person."
Sh*l*ck "refuses to be merciful" even rejecting "a generous offer by the generous Christians."
"It is only the J*w who is uncompromising..."
"The vengeful, bitter J*w is defeated..."
"Sh*l*ck is Sh*l*ck, just the greedy money-lending J*w."
"...it is Shyl*ck who is scheming for revenge."
"the greedy J*w lives in an evil shadow"
"Sh*l*ck's thirst for vengeance and his J*wishness are one and the same, and so eliminating the J*wish aspect will make him a less angry member of society...."
Who are these people I'm teaching this term?

  • At 2/16/2007 02:21:00 PM, Blogger Ancarett wrote…

    I've had students fall back and forth over the problem of articulating historical prejudices without it sounding like their own voice. Writing about women in pre-modern society, for example, makes many of my male students uncomfortable because they don't know how to clearly show "they said this because they felt that" and not have that sound like their own viewpoints. Many marginal students do not understand how to distance themselves from the characters they analyze.

    If it's widespread, the best way is to handle this by concocting some examples to share with the class which illustrate the pitfalls and how to (hopefully!) avoid them. If a student persists, however, I would definitely call them in for a conference, explain the problems and if they persisted in their viewpoint, point out the vital necessity that they learn to disassociate their own interpretations from the material they're studying.


  • At 2/17/2007 12:48:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Thanks, ancarett.

    I agree that this is probably (hopefully) what is going on with this student; it wasn't a very good paper, clearly dashed off without a lot of thought going into it. The onslaught of invective, however, left me with a distinctly queasy feeling--the assignment definitely wasn't meant to be some sort of anti-Semitic litmus test in which the students were supposed to confront the limits of their own religious tolerance. Anyway, your comments helped calm me down somewhat, so, again, thanks.


  • At 2/17/2007 02:09:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    I've had this problem with gender as well -- male students apparently buying into, say, Iago's "fond paradoxes" about women, etc. It's an awkward situation, because what you really want to say (but can't) is, what's wrong with you? But ancarett's approach is clearly the way to go.

    A related issue that I've noticed is that students -- especially religious students -- reading Milton find it almost impossible not to lapse into a "he's right about God / he's wrong about God" judgment. The idea of a distanced description of an ideology, which brackets the question of its truth or falsity, seems to be an issue for a lot of students. They seem to want criticism to be evaluation.


  • At 2/18/2007 04:51:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    Inkhorn, I've had the same problem teaching Milton, although less frequently than I expected--many religious students seem really *excited* to be dealing with a religious writer, and are willing to put theological disagreements on hold. (Or maybe the problem is that they don't *have* theological disagreements, because their religion is so happy-clappy.)

    However, I did have a colleague in grad school who once had a student ask him, in all seriousness, why he (the TA) was suggesting that Milton *wasn't* a prophet--as far as the student was concerned, Milton probably *was* taking dictation from God in all his writings.


  • At 2/18/2007 05:09:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    At least that student understood what Milton was claiming.

    My experiences teaching Milton have been much more in line with Inkhorn's. There has usually been at least one evangelical student who was very affected by the poem--and their responses have ranged from psychological mania (i.e., real craziness) to anxieties about their faith to queasy feelings that Milton shouldn't have written a poem in which God and the Son are actually represented as literary figures talking and arguing and cetera.

    That being said, most of the other students have been as Flavia described--not exactly sure what their church holds to be true ("I'm going to have to ask my pastor about this...") but kind of excited by the prospect of engaging in some debates about "vain wisdom" and "false Philosophy."


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